– Were you interested in things like Afro-beat that Fela Kuti did?
Yes, I liked all that world music and I always liked the music from [Bob] Marley: it was great. I loved Ali Farka Touré and all that music, really good. And I love all those drums, of course! (Laughs.)
– That throws another arc all the way back to the RENAISSANCE’s “Bullet”: there are some African things in it as well – with blues harmonica.
Yes, that was very odd, wasn’t it? It was a blues harmonica, and we used a sort of an African chant as well. Very strange!
– It was rubbing shoulders with pieces like “Kings And Queens.” Did you deliberately want to compose epic compositions or was it a vehicle for you to be playing and enjoying yourself?
It was fun, it was fun to do, and doing that sort of orchestral style just seemed something that worked and just fell into place, and I always enjoyed it: it was a good sound.
– I love it very much, but then there was “Past Orbits Of Dust”: it was like early electronics! And drone as well.
It was very strange. Strange sort of track but…
– Strange but not weird!
No, true, not weird.
– That was the same drone in “Past Orbits” that you tried to explore in THE YARDBIRDS, with those Indian scales.
– Not many people notice, but there are two versions of “Heart Full Of Soul”: one with sitar and one without it. Two distinctly different versions.
Yeah, yeah, totally, weren’t they! It’s quite different: the sitar version is very interesting, but the way Jeff Beck played that riff is so much more vital, he really nailed it. It really sounded so much more “present” with the sitar, the sitar was sort of rather dreamy.
– So “On The Frontier”: it was by SHOOT. But there’s almost no information about this band of yours. What did you play?
You can actually download that album [“On The Frontier”] if you want, it’s downloadable: you can find it, it’s on Amazon. SHOOT was just a way of… I just fancied singing my own songs and composing them on the piano. It wasn’t so much a gigging thing, though we did play a bit live. It was a good combination with the guitar player, a guy called Dave Greene; we used to get on well together, we did harmonies and it was fun. Bass was played by Bill Russell who lives in Ireland, he’s Irish, and the drummer was Craig Collinge who I think was from New Zealand. He played with MANFRED MANN‘S EARTH BAND (it was CHAPTER THREE – DME). It was nothing out of the ordinary, just nice songs.
– Was it you who gave the title song of the SHOOT album to RENAISSANCE or did they ask to do a cover version of it?
I can’t really remember! I don’t remember that story. Maybe it went through the manager or through Betty Thatcher, or… I can’t remember how that happened but we were all very close, because I was still presenting songs for them. And then they started to go away from me when they had Mick Dunford, and he and Betty started working together so… Mickey was in the band so they really didn’t need me anymore.
– Was it a kind of soft revenge on your part to compose a piece called “Candles Are Burning” when they had “Ashes Are Burning”?
(Laughs.) It’s interesting! I don’t think there was a conscious effort or decision, but I thought “Candles Are Burning” was quite nice title, you know? And maybe a bit more alive than “Ashes Are Burning.” I didn’t take too much notice of them since they sort of got me out.
– When did you become very confident as a singer, in the SHOOT times or after Keith Relf passed away?
It was always a bit difficult because suddenly you had to stand up front, rather than being behind the drums. It’s very easy behind the drums – you can just disappear – and when you’re singing up front it’s totally different. I think Karen Carpenter had the same problem, because she used to play the drums. But I think after Keith died, we changed around the idea, changed around the band and we formed ILLUSION. It gave me impetus to do it, to take that place. But I enjoyed it… I really enjoy it now. I really like it because I feel like a different person. (Laughs.) It’s like I’m presenting my whole self rather than just hiding away on the kit.
– How was it for the first time hearing another drummer behind you and not playing yourself?
It was funny, very strange, but it’s all about locking in and taking a part. And it’s quite nice because you don’t have to think about that side of it and you can relax and play along.
– But when you play yourself you pay attention to your drumming, but if somebody else behind you makes a mistake you just cringe. And it’s hard to concentrate on singing when you hear somebody else doing basically…
Yes, yes! (Laughs infectiously.) I know what you mean! But if you’ve got confidence in them you can relax and think, “This is fine.” The guy in ILLUSION [Eddie McNeil] wasn’t a great drummer but he was quite good, he played some things very well.
– ILLUSION were different from RENAISSANCE. It was like, you were the lead singer and Jane had been cast in the supporting role on many compositions.
Right. It was different in that it wasn’t so involved, either, it wasn’t so classical and it wasn’t too… it was a bit more simple in terms of songs.
– Previously it had been two siblings who were singing and now it was like, you and the backing vocalist.
Well, in a way, though she sang a lot of leads. She sang “Face Of Yesterday” and “Wings Across The Sea” and we sang a lot of songs together, as co-lead, as well: “Cruising Nowhere” on our second album and things like that.
– And you decided to reprise “Face Of Yesterday” from RENAISSANCE, on ILLUSION’s "Out Of The Mist" to link it all together…
– But did you feel like being a real face of yesterday by that time?
(Laughs.) I can’t remember the mechanics of that one. I think we brought it in because it really fitted and it was really very much Jane’s song, and she sang it better in ILLUSION, too.
– She sounded more soulful.
She got better, she got better, Jane. She had more confidence in ILLUSION than she did in RENAISSANCE.
– Even though it was you who was the lead singer, it was Jane who graced the cover of “Out Of The Mist.”
(Laughs.) Yes! Well, she was very important in the band, and I think when a lot of people think about ILLUSION they think of her.
– How much did you tour?
We did a tour with Brian Ferry and we toured with Dory Previn. So we did two real tours and we used to play some other gigs, like “Friars” in Aylesbury, that was like a good old-fashioned ’60s gig. We played other gigs: we played in Germany and all that.
– Are there any concert recordings from this time?
Yeah, there are. There’s a live performance somewhere – it is the bootleg. I’ll have to pick it out.
– Do you plan to release it?
That would be quite good, wouldn’t it? I hadn’t thought [about it]. That might be a nice idea.
– Why do you think your third album remained unreleased for some time? And why didn’t your music register on such a level as, say, “Northern Lights” by RENAISSANCE?
It was typical for us, because after the second album we were dropped by the record company. We were on Island Records the same as we were before, with RENAISSANCE, and it was the time when they had lots of punk bands coming along, and “Enchanted Caress” wasn’t released, as our music wasn’t very fashionable.
– Tracks such as “As Long As We’re Together” or “Crossed Lines”: to me they fall into this “easy listening” category as, say, JAMES LAST ORCHESTRA, or as I mentioned, “Northern Lights.”
Yes, but we really weren’t a big enough established group to weather that, and the record company dropping us, it was… What were we supposed to do was? We had some other songs which we, like those ones you mentioned, and we recorded them as demos to get another record deal, but we never did get one.
– So you took the tapes and just went away?
Yes, we just took the tapes. We probably sent them around to people, but it wasn’t a good time, with SEX PISTOLS and all those bands.
– Later, with THE YARDBIRDS, you had a song called “An Original Man” which you dedicated to Keith Relf, but what about ILLUSION’s “The Man Who Loved the Trees”? Was it also dedicated to him?
No, no, no. I think that was just… just anyone, a song of my imagination about someone who liked to be in the woods, but it wasn’t anyone in particular.
– So it’s more in connection with what you did in your “new age” era with STAIRWAY than with tree-hugging?
Yeah, yeah! Probably! (Long laughter.)
– By the way, I saw some clips from the STAIRWAY concert on YouTube. So did you tour?
No, we didn’t tour, we only played a few venues. That concert was at St. James Church, which was this sort of alternative type of venue, a special place where people go for lectures and things like that. So we did a show there and we did a show at “Festival of Mind and Body,” those sort of things. Not really rock and roll venues.
– Yeah and how did people react to that?
They liked it because it was the right audience.
– You played only STAIRWAY material or…
Yeah. We were just playing the STAIRWAY things. I think we might have… I can’t really remember now if we played any of the poppy stuff. I don’t think we did.
– You call it “poppy stuff”?
We did a gig once and we did “Turn Into Earth” from THE YARDBIRDS. That was when John Idan came along and sang with us.
– So you said you had a difficult time in the late ’70s. What did you do between that time and BOX OF FROGS?
What did I do? I always had ideas for music, but I think I did part-time jobs, too. I’d drive people around in the car, I did like cab-driving or whatever, to make ends meet.
– I just can’t believe that a musician with a status like yours wasn’t needed for, sessions or composing, that kind of thing.
Well, there was always something going on, there always maybe a session or… I was always interested in writing stuff but it was difficult to do it without a point, an ending. It was difficult to write with no purpose. But there were things that came through.
– Can you compare those times with the current situation?
No, I don’t think so, because I feel very much my own person now and I feel as though I can write songs for myself, that I can work without a band, in a way. I can work for myself. It feels different. I think then I didn’t have enough confidence to be Jim McCarty as a solo person.
– And then you met Paul Samwell-Smith again? And you decided to revive the old writing team?
What happened was, Chris [Dreja] and I were contacted by an agent to do the twentieth anniversary of “The Marquee” in London. We were going to do two shows. So we got people who we knew could do it. We couldn’t get the guitar players, but we did our YARDBIRDS show with a couple of other guys, and it was from there that we thought it might be nice to write songs again. And BOX OF FROGS was a very slow thing to come together, but we started to do songs and gradually the ball kept rolling and got bigger and bigger.
– How did it feel writing with Paul again if you compare it to the YARDBIRDS time?
It was nice, it was always fun with Paul and Chris. We got a few ideas very slowly together but we didn’t really have a band, but things came together and it was quite a good fun venture.
– Why didn’t you call yourselves THE YARDBIRDS again?
We thought it wasn’t really THE YARDBIRDS per se, so for some reason we decided not to call it so, even though there were three or four of us involved in it! I can’t remember why we did it: I think we were all sort of honoring THE YARDBIRDS for their legend and we didn’t want to mess with it, you know. We didn’t think it was really big enough as a comeback as THE YARDBIRDS at that time anyway.
– But how did you hook up with John Fiddler? Through his work with MEDICINE HEAD?
Yeah, we just needed a frontman singer and we were wondering who we were going to get and then we thought about John because he’d worked with Keith before.
– Did you need only a frontman for BOX OF FROGS, or you also wanted a creative input?
Well, both, but it was a frontman really. But John was good as well because he was very creative, too. We used to have a lot of sessions together. In fact, I particularly with John, we used to do songs together. And we more or less agreed that we should share all the songwriting to make it equal, although “Back Where I Started” was mainly John and I that wrote that song for our first album.
– That was the most “Yardbirds-y” traditional song.
Yes. It was a simple song and I think I came up with some of the melody and John did quite a bit of it.
– And then you had a full array of the guitarists including John Knightsbridge from ILLUSION. Does it mean you wanted to make it like a continuation of all threads, all the bands that you’d been doing before that?
Yes, in a way, because John Knightsbridge played on the “Marquee” anniversary as well. He played in that band on guitar when we played as THE YARDBIRDS. And he did sing some songs too, because he was quite a good singer. It was nice to get into a project and just have guests, people who you knew and admired and people who were involved with you.
– With Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page it was kind of obvious but Rory Gallagher?
Yes! Rory was always good, because we always liked what he did and he was a fan of [THE YARDBIRDS] as well, so it worked well. And also with Steve Hackett: I didn’t particularly knew [his blues side], I just knew he was a very good player and he was a very nice guy, and he turned out to be a big fan of the band, so it seemed like a good idea he should be involved. It was good working with him.
– Did he want to use his harmony guitar?
His harmony guitar? I don’t think he did it on "Strange Land". We just asked him to play, and it was quite funny, actually, because he, of all people, had a huge rig, with a huge amount of speakers. And when he set it up in the studio, he sat in the control room and played – we were all in the control room – and I don’t know what he was going through (laughs) but if you walked into the studio it was absolutely deafening! The sound! It was amazing, I never heard anything like it!
– And then you invited him to play on your solo album, "Sitting On The Top Of Time"!
Yeah, because I had this song (“Living From The Inside Out”) and it seemed to really cry out for that style of guitar, that real ’70s, like you say, harmony type of thing.
– On the second BOX OF FROGS album, it looked like John Fiddler was kind of sidelined. Was it because he wanted to tour but you didn’t want to?
No, but that was part of it: I was always interested in touring, it was the other two that didn’t want to, Paul and Chris, because they had other things to do. But I was available, I could have done it. But yes, John and Paul were very tight first of all, on the first album, and then they started not getting on so well. And I don’t know if his heart was in it so much on the second album; I don’t think he liked some of the songs, like “Average” (sung eventually by Ian Dury – DME).
– So there are only five songs with Fiddler on: does that mean he walked away having recorded only those or he’d come back, forth and back, off and on?
I think he was like back and forth, yeah. I don’t think there was a point where he stopped and then we got other people, I think he was still involved. We were thinking, “If we diversify with the guitar players, why not try different singers?”
– It’s a strange situation, with Ian Dury and Graham Parker.
And Roger Chapman! I think that’s where we went wrong, because it’s very difficult if you’re doing an album – it’s not really continuity with lots of different singers. It needs a continual singer.
– But you know, you picked quintessential ’80s indie-rock singers. Did you want to use them to ride into the charts?
No, I think it was just for diversity, just for, thinking, “Let’s make the project a bit more diverse.” Maybe they were the wrong people to use, in retrospect.
– “Average” stands out to me not only because of the vocals but because of the drumming. Did you try to sound, again, the ’80s style?
(Laughs.) No, I don’t think that was particularly done differently, that one. That was the sound we were using. I think we were using a particular technique on the snare drum, which was, like, a particular echo delay that was very much popular in those days.
– Was it your idea or Samwell-Smith’s as a producer?
I think it came about through the engineer on the first album, the way the engineer did it. And it sounded good at the time but it was one of those things that always sounds dated when you look back on something.
– Have you ever tried electronic drums?
(Laughs.) No, I never really liked them. You know, they always sounded very dated.
– You mentioned Roger Chapman, who sang “Heart Full Of Soul”: a very unique version to my ears.
(Laughs.) Yes! I think it was my idea and I don’t know why, because he’s a very unique singer and his voice is something that not everyone likes. You know, it’s very…
Yes, it’s interesting, and him doing something like “Heart Full Of Soul” in that way was quite unusual.
– As was the arrangement!
Yes, the arrangement was different, too: it was almost like, like you say, a sort of ’80s disco arrangement. (Laughs.) I thought it was good.
– And then he sang “Strange Land”: was there some connection to the FAMILY song “Strange Band”?
No, no, not at all. It was a totally different song. It was just a coincidence. Weird coincidence! (Laughs.)
– Those cover versions: was there a lack of fresh material on the second BOX OF FROGS album?
I think there probably was. There wasn’t quite the same impetus because, when you do an album and you haven’t done one for a while, there’s quite a lot of songs you’ve taken time to do, and when you have to do a second album you haven’t had so much time. Sometimes you don’t have enough material.
– Like you’re in the cage of your own making.
(Laughs.) Yes, exactly. And everyone’s saying it’s the same with ILLUSION, with those two albums: everyone’s saying that the first album was good but the second one needs to be better. So you’re really struggling because you’re trying to get even better songs.